Fourth Branch of America -
Albany County District Attorney, David Soares

By Ray Feliciano (Interview from January 2006 TIC.)

Q: You’ve been Albany county’s District Attorney for a year now. How do you like your job so far?

“I love my job. There are a lot of frustrations, a lot of obstacles to overcome. Every day is different with new challenges. I come into work every morning believing there is something we can do to increase the quality of life for people.”

Q: What are the responsibilities of a DA?

“This is the only position, I think, where your interaction with the public is in such a close range. All crimes and issues that people are involved with come across your table. There are decisions as to how to charge an individual, and whether or not to charge an individual when those interests are against public safety and justice. It’s not as simple as some think it is. Some very difficult decisions come from this office.”

Albany County District Attorney, David Soares
FBA Founder, Ray Feliciano,
shakes hands with David Soares,
the District Attorney of Albany County

(photo: Kimberly Feliciano)

Q: What is the biggest surprise you’ve found?

“My biggest surprise is post 9/11—given our location in Albany County, we are not communicating enough. Exit 24 is the gateway to upstate, downstate, and western commerce. We should be communicating more effectively, operating closer, and working more cooperatively. All law enforcement should have more information sharing, data mining, information gathering. We work very well in certain circumstances, but there is an incredible amount of information to share, and we need the technology that will allow various levels of government to communicate.”

Q: Have you discussed this with Senator Balboni, Chairman of Homeland Security for New York?

“I have not discussed it with Senator Balboni. I’ve been working with local law enforcement and on strategies to share information amongst ourselves more effectively. Organizations like the NY State Police have made significant investments here in the Capital District to deal with issues such as Homeland Security and information gathering, but there is a lot more that we agencies can be doing, and it’s one of my goals to facilitate that. There are inequities. You pay for law enforcement with your tax dollars, so the smaller the municipality the smaller the resources. Given our location, we can’t allow for that. This is just not an area we can allow to short-change. Law enforcement is important for public safety. It is important on a national level, and I’d like to see more in the way of resources provided.”

Q: Is there top-down training and guidance from the federal government on terrorism prevention?

“There is. We’ve just signed on with MAGLOCLEN (Mid Atlantic-Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network), which provides a lot of training for local law enforcement. We are hoping to make a lot more training available.”

Q: How do you balance strictly applying statutes of law vs. taking circumstances into consideration?

“I’ll give you some examples. We recently had a very high-profile case which involved teenagers, and there were certain members of the constituency that didn’t think the case was very serious. It involved a 16-year-old boy engaging in certain activities with an older woman. A person violated the law, regardless of what you think or personally feel. We have an obligation to hold everyone to the same standard. You can’t factor in ‘older female, younger male’. Had those circumstances been different, ‘older male, younger female’, there would have been a public outcry. So, you have to take these various things into consideration, and you have to understand what the public is concerned with and how the public is interpreting some things. But the bottom line is that you have a job to do. It’s also about educating the public. If this is not the kind of law that you want us to enforce then you have a legislative body you should appeal to.”

Q: Does the punishment that you pursue vary?

“The ends of justice will always be pursued, but sometimes prosecuting a case as vigorously as one can may not be consistent with the ends of justice. There are always gray areas in the law, and it’s about finding balance within the gray.”

Q: When is it appropriate to charge a juvenile as an adult, meaning subject to adult punishments?

“I think you have to look at the circumstances. There may be mitigating factors in respect to conduct. There are cases where there are no mitigating factors—a youth that conscientiously engaged in activity that requires action of an adult consequence.”

Q: Do you think the laws should be revised to hold people accountable for their actions at a lower age?

“I don’t know that there’s a need to revise the laws because you have prosecutors in place that will use discretion in going about applying the law. So, I don’t think that in the criminal justice realm we can just go ahead and check off who to vote for without looking at character. The judicial races, for the most part, have been very stoic. People mostly pay attention to the mayoral, council, and legislative races, but these are races to pay attention to. You need to know where that judge’s politics lie. You got to know more about a judge, and you got to know more about a prosecutor. That person is responsible for enforcing the law. Do you want someone who talks about being ‘tough and tough and tough’ and basically doesn’t factor in anything else other than the black letter law? Or, do you want somebody who is going to look at the individual and consider mitigating factors? If society’s priorities shift, we should have laws that reflect that shift. I think you know how difficult it is to change laws and to get legislators to actually come to an agreement. I think that if you are not going to have that kind of immediate change in the law you need to look at who is enforcing the law and put someone there who is going to do the job that reflects the constituents.”

Q: Reforming the ‘Rockefeller Drug Laws’ was one of your planks. What progress has been made?

“I’m glad you ask this question because we cannot be confused into believing that we actually have ‘reform’ because there are so many different aspects of reform, and what has changed is only one aspect. They have shifted policy on the penalties for the ‘A’ and ‘A-2’ felonies, but most people convicted of any ‘A’ felony are also convicted of a ‘B’ felony associated with it. Although you’re getting a relief on the ‘A’ felonies, you’re not getting relief on a ‘B’ felony, and it’s the ‘B’ felonies that cause most of the problems, in terms of people coming out sooner. They’re liquidating their time, so that’s still a problem.”

“The greatest problem facing this state and this country right now is that we have over two million people currently incarcerated. Take Albany, for example. Most people engaged in that lifestyle are generally coming from the City of Albany. They come from very distinct locations, pockets of crime. If you go upstairs right now you’ll see attorneys prosecuting a lot of people.”

“Here’s an example [opened a file] on Second Avenue in the South End, and it’s the same areas in the city, and it tends to be that way. Now, we prosecute them, we send them to prison, they’ve been in and out of prison, and where are they coming back to? They come back to the same environment. The greatest challenge we face is re-entry. It’s re-entry. What are we doing with the people who are coming back to the community?”

“Traditional prosecutors would look at me and say, ‘What the hell is this guy talking about? Why would we want to help these prisoners coming back to the community?’ I’m a person who really is compassionate about public safety. If the conditions exist in the community right now, like unemployment and dropping out of school, and crime is being confined to certain locations, don’t you think we’re adding to the problem if we are sending a person to prison and they come back to same environment?”

“So we’ve got to think about re-entry. What are they doing in prisons right now? Are people getting access to education while they’re in? Are they exposed to the trades? Are they getting training so that can be viable members of the workforce when they do come out? And what are we doing about job creation? And what are we doing about job creation in those specific locations so at least there’s something else to cling onto other than all of the available job opportunities that exist right now in the criminal job market.”

Q: Why is it so out-of-the-box to think as you do about the underlying causes of crime rather than simply treating crime symptomatically?

“It’s uncommon because it’s much easier to react, and it’s much easier to stand and pound your chest and pound your hand on the desk and be ‘tough’. That’s the easy thing to do. That appeals to people more, ya know, the average consumer who’s out there watching television. We’ve been dealing with the same issues coming from the same areas of this city historically, so why not stop and think, ‘We seem to be getting a lot of moths. We’re catching them and doing what we have to do with them. What about the flame? What about the light that continues to attract the moths?’ Why don’t we just turn that off? Let’s see what happens.” “There are certain communities here that are not affected by crime. Colonie is voted as one of the most safest places in the country to live. The City of Albany is one of the unsafest places to live, according to an article that came out several weeks ago. Why are we not studying that? Why aren’t we looking at that and saying, ‘What makes this a better place to live than this?’ Is it employment? Does the education system play into this? Does stable communities play a factor? If it does, then why aren’t we trying to model them here in the city?”

“We are beyond the point where we have to continue reacting. I play this game, I do this job, believing that we can accomplish something. But, I also know we can’t accomplish it alone, which is why I always take the opportunity to go and speak to the public, with whoever is putting on the event. It’s important for the people to know that they have a role to play. It’s just not calling the cops. If you live on a street that is an otherwise dark street, you have a public safety role to play. It’s called ‘turn on the lights’. People ask me, ‘Well, what can I do?’ You know what? Just crossing the street and talking to your neighbor has an affect. It sends the message to the people who would otherwise come into your neighborhood and set up shop. There’s a role for everyone to play.”

Q: What programs would relieve a crime-ridden area?

“We just started a Safe Home, Safe Streets program, which is basically this: If law enforcement is coming through your door with a warrant, and they find narcotics in your apartment, well there is a criminal prosecution that’s taking place, but we should also be providing relief to that landlord. In the system, that landlord would evict that person involved in the criminal activity. Landlords are doing that, but they’re showing up in court, sometimes without legal representation, and they’re engaging in the eviction proceeding by themselves. We can provide technical assistance and copies of evidence reports showing scales and other items found on the premises. It would assist the judge in being able to make a decision.”

“My whole philosophy is about engaging people on a grassroots level. I don’t enjoy sitting in front of fifteen cameras and talking about what we need to do. You’ve got to be in the neighborhoods. What’s more important is you’ve got to walk with them in their own neighborhood and show them what is possible.”

“I was doing a neighborhood assessment on Morris Street, and it took about three hours to walk the block. People are so fed up with what’s going on in their community. They think all is lost. We’ve got to go to them and say, ‘All is not lost and we can win this.’ The problem we found there is that there was a lot of talking, but no talking to one another in that community. One African-American woman blamed the young Puerto Rican kids that lived down the end of the block. When you talk with the young Puerto Rican kids, they identify the crabby guy who lives in the middle of the block. The problems that they pointed out to me, were problems that a community should be working out amongst themselves, not relying on law enforcement to do it. There was no discussion amongst them. That is basic and what is going on right now throughout this city. You have good people who are not communicating with one another, allowing for the criminals to come in and basically set up shop and do whatever it is they want to do.”

“What you find in most inner city neighborhoods is that you don’t have any standards, and if you don’t have a standard, you can’t expect people to live up to them.”

Q: Is there a way for people to interact with their government to promote such programs?

“Government is not good at doing much of anything. We’re not good at getting into the private sector. I want to be held accountable. I want to be the guy who comes back to you in your neighborhood and says, ‘We’ve gotten fifteen arrests over the last two weeks. The arrest that you called about…’ Think about it from a citizen’s perspective. You see activity going on and you rely on the media to provide you with information, but you’re not getting any kind of response from the people who are actually engaged in the activity—law enforcement.”

“I want to be in a place where, a year from now, I can come to you in your neighborhood association, and talk about everything that’s happened in your neighborhood over the course of the past month. What’s more important to me is, now that you know we’ve removed someone, it’s important that we replace that person with someone who is going to abide by your community standard. I want to be held accountable. That’s the kind of communication that I want to have with the people. That’s the only way we’re going to turn these neighborhoods around. I’ve said it a million times—You can put a cop, a prosecutor, and a judge there, but you’re not going to be able to turn it around unless the community is actually at the forefront.”

Q: Are neighborhood associations the key to successful community revitalization?

“What I would like to see is for us to get to a point where we can say, ‘You’re responsible for the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association, and those three associations.’ As for the prosecutor, you’re doing your job knowing that there’s a case that took place, and can go before the neighborhood association and report on it. If someone from the neighborhood association has a question, they have someone to talk to and can call and say, for example, ‘Chris, can you find this out?’ That’s accountability. That’s what we need. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the key.”

Q: What can we do to facilitate people interacting positively with their police force rather than feeling intimidated by them?

“This is my humble opinion, okay? Everyone is dealing with limited resources. When you think about your average police force anywhere in the country, they have to prioritize. They too have their priorities. Community policing is the most important program that any department can have because you have an individual who is walking streets, hopefully working on your behalf to establish trust with the community. That community needs to know who they can call and where his office is. When you have resources drying up, sometimes the person that goes is the community police office and program because, again, it’s not a ‘tough’ kind of program. It’s not ‘impact’ and an aggressive law enforcement tactic. And yet, it’s the way to do away with what we have right now, which is a lot of distress.”

“The automobile has effected the community relationship with law enforcement because a lot of times all you see is an officer riding down the street. You know what? You don’t get to meet Mrs. Jones when you’re riding in a car. You don’t get to know that Mrs. Jones works and has to take the bus to Westgate, and is not part of the same problems that exist in the house next to her. I think it works both ways—law enforcement gets to know people in the neighborhood, but you also have faith in the police and are trusting them more. But, right now, we don’t seem to have this communication.”

Q: Where do your resources come from?

“Tax dollars are paying for the police departments. Most police departments are really depending upon a lot of grants, both from state and federal governments. There are cuts in a lot of these programs.”

Q: Are there any creative ways to get funding?

“There are, but you have to have people and partners who also think outside the box to accomplish that. If the mindset is not there, then things are more difficult. My role is public safety. That’s a very different way of defining my role than I think most prosecutors define their role. So, when you think about public safety, you think about education and activities outside of school, and establishing partnerships with the education community to receive grants that help to address public safety.”

“We are looking at an asset forfeiture program—when you can seize an asset from a criminal who is using that particular resource to further his criminal activities, or even seize items that the criminal has used illegal monies to purchase. We want to improve our asset forfeiture program, liquidate some of those resources and put them into neighborhood associations. We did that with some folks, providing them with walkie-talkies.”

Q: What about corporate sponsors?

“There’s a resource that we seldom think about. That’s one of the areas I’m looking forward to getting into. I think that Kodak would be an incredible sponsor. It’s one of those sponsorships that makes sense.”

Q: What programs have you proposed that have met with resistance?

“One of the things that will continue to plague us in this city, in this county, is politics. When you consider, for example, certain boroughs in New York City that have experienced improvement in their quality of life, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why can’t we accomplish some of those same goals?’ Do you know where the bad neighborhoods are in this city? We all know where they are, so why don’t we just go in and clean them up? The political relationships often times determine the level of cooperation you’re going to get in whatever endeavor. My frustrations come from the fact that sometimes we prioritize our political interests above the true objectives of public safety. I can tell you that when I was a community prosecutor, and I opened up my office on 39 Clinton Avenue, I was walking in political mine fields every day. ‘What’s he doing here?’ What?! Are you kidding me? I’m doing my job. Why should I have to respond to you, or why should I have to make fifteen phone calls just to be able to walk into a meeting to get something done?”

Q: Do you believe it was because of the splash you made in the political process?

“I think it continues to be a problem because I think people see my efforts as being politically motivated as opposed to just getting the work done.”

Q: Do you believe Schwarzenegger’s decision regarding Tookie Williams, denying him clemency, was political? When is the death penalty warranted?

“Have you ever seen the film Redemption? It’s a fantastic film. We don’t have a choice as to who our children decide to use as role models. Here’s a guy who had done some pretty horrible things in his life, and I think we had an opportunity here to really turn back the tide of violence. A lot of gang members are basically the very organization that he helped build. I think we’ve lost an opportunity here. Wasn’t he nominated for a Pulitzer Prize?”

“The connection that needs to be made, and this is not a popular thing to say, but you’re bringing ‘McGruff the Crime-fighting Dog’ into fifth grade classes here in Albany where kids are walking to school and seeing violence on a level that McGruff doesn’t talk about. The people these kids need to be exposed to are some of the guys that are coming out and can tell the kids, ‘Look, what you’re doing right now, this is where it’s leading you to, and let me tell you about what it’s like to walk through that door the very first day, and let me tell you what it’s like every single day that you’re there.’ That’s the kind of in your face, and I’m not talking about ‘Scared Straight’ because Scared Straight works for some and not for other kids. We need to be very open and honest with our children.”

Q: What’s the difference between ‘Scared Straight’ and what you are describing?

“I don’t need to get in our face and yell and scream at you. That works for some people, but we’re talking about putting a 21-year-old kid who’s just done a stretch in state prison in a classroom full of young boys or girls who have done something to matriculate themselves out of the traditional classroom setting. The behavior that they’ve engaged in is behavior that, but for the fact that it occurred in school, is criminal otherwise. So, why not have someone who went down that path sit there? I’m saying this from personal experience because my role models when I was growing up were not the kids carrying the book bag. They were the kids that were punks, the thugs, and they were the ones that prevented me from doing what they were doing. ‘You don’t want to do this. Get outta here.’ Or, ‘We know your mom.’ But, these are the kind of people that I think some of our students need to be exposed to.”

Q: How do you determine which cases you will prosecute versus those you will delegate to assistant DA’s?

“I delegate all the cases to the assistants. I’m not at a point right now where I’ll be doing the cases personally. That will come in this calendar year (2005) or hereafter (2006), but as far as turning the organization around and restructuring this organization, I would not be able to accomplish that if I were in fact on cases at the same time. When we came into the office, we did away with some bureaus and created new bureaus. We adopted a vertical style prosecution. An example of that is before say a case was being arraigned this morning, it would come into the grand jury unit which would indict the case, then hand the case off to someone else… We created a case review board that meets here on Wednesdays and Fridays, and myself and three bureau chiefs, a chief assistant, and a victim advocate will sit here and review every case coming into the office. Those cases are assigned from this desk and the person who is assigned the case will be indicting that case, will be prosecuting that case and take that case to its ultimate conclusion.”

Q: What can we do to make the system equitable for those people who can’t afford expensive lawyers?

“That’s a very good question. I will start off by saying that if you look at our public defender system here in Albany County, these are some of the best attorneys in Albany County. So, you’re not looking at an office that has lazy people kicking their feet up and not returning phone calls to their clients. What you have here is an incredible staff that is burdened by an incredible caseload. They need more resources. They need more staff, more tools, research material, and definitely need more resources. But, that has to come from our legislators. As citizens who are concerned about our public defender system, that appeal should be made to your local legislator to ensure that they get more resources in their budget. My assistants in the street crimes unit, they’re carrying sixty cases (constant level), and it’s difficult to manage from one person to the next. You can resolve six this week, but the pipeline is still flowing. That’s what public defenders have to deal with. There’s a range of cases that they’re dealing with—disorderly conduct to homicide—so they’re prioritizing their cases, too. As a citizen whose concerned about the public defender system, one of the things that you want to do is talk to your legislator to get them the resources they need. They do a fine job.”

Q: What are some of the after school programs you are currently working on?

“‘Bring It to the Courts’ is the one we are putting together. Also, one of the objectives I have is to get into the schools and change the perception of law enforcement, especially young kids who view us as being the bad guys. Myself and a representative from NOBLE (National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives) are going to be putting a group of people together to go into these classrooms and create after school programs about confrontation, de-escalation, and to know that when someone from law enforcement is talking to you the objective here is to follow, provide information, and go about your business.”

Q: What is your take on LEAP's stance on drug prohibition, and would you consider not prosecuting non-violent drug offenders?

“I’m well aware of LEAP’s position. We have an incredible public health problem with drugs and addiction. The criminal justice system is now addressing it through special courts like the drug courts. Drug courts work. Declining to prosecute is declining to address the issue. Prosecution shouldn’t always be viewed as locking people away and throwing away the key. There are alternatives to incarceration. We just have to be creative so that the non-violent addict can be held accountable and get relief in the battle.”

Q: What is the purpose of the Police Review Board, and can be done to make it more effective?

“Police Review Boards are designed to create dialogue with the public and to establish accountability within a department. The best boards are the boards that facilitate open and frank discussions. Police have an incredibly difficult job to do and their decisions are going to be second guessed. I think more people who attend the Police Review Board hearings, or people who are empanelled, should be required to do several ride-a-longs. That perspective goes along way in getting into the minds of the police. It would also better explain their actions.”

Q: What would you like the public to know about your position or the situation in Albany County?

“What I would like the public to know is that these are some turbulent times in our community. We have more kids who are failing in the educational system and therefore they’re coming into the criminal justice system. They’re getting younger and younger. The things that these kids are engaged in are more lethal than they ever have been before. But all is not lost. We can turn this thing around, but it can’t just be on the shoulders of law enforcement. We need more community involvement. We need more participation in neighborhood associations. We need more neighborhood watch programs. There are things that we can do that don’t require us to fill out an RFP for money—just requires us volunteering our time. That’s what I want the public to know. We can beat this, and we can beat this if we put our heads to it, in a calendar year. We can turn things around in this city and this county in a calendar year, in a calendar year.”

“You drive by 3rd Avenue and Teunis Street in Albany today. Do this for me: As you drive by that street, look around. You are going to come to that intersection at 3rd and Teunis, and before you arrive at that intersection, you’re going to see this abandoned old building on your right hand side. You are going to see trees that have grown so far out that it actually forms a canopy. You are going to see another abandoned building on the left hand side. There’s one apartment with people living there, and the rest are boarded up old buildings. That particular location, if you ever do a premise history of those apartments and calls for service to that general location, you would be shocked at the amount of calls for service that go out there. And again, what’s contributing to the problem there? It’s the abandoned buildings, the darkness, and it’s a place that is perfectly suitable for criminals to go and engage in their enterprise. You don’t have people walking around there, no one peeking around. They’ve got the place locked down, and people are fearful. That’s what we have to overcome, and I say that in a calendar year, and it doesn’t take a calendar year to trim the trees down to allow for more natural light. It doesn’t take a calendar year to fix the building or have that building put into the hands of someone who’s actually going to do something with it. Those are the kind of things that are also part of public safety. We can’t compartmentalize. There are environmental things contributing to diminished quality of life. There are educational things that are contributing to the diminished quality of life. There are all sorts of issues contributing to crime in this community, and until we stop compartmentalizing and all rise to the table and say, ‘How do we solve this?’ We need to put lights in some of these neighborhoods. In a calendar year, if we all came to the table and said, ‘We’re going to start right here. We’re going to take four blocks. All the social workers at 112 State Street, you have the statistics, you know the families you’re servicing. If we are all moving in the same direction, all of us having a role to play, a calendar year.”